The Forever Engine – Snippet 45
“I’ll be back,” I told Gabi.
I walked over to him. He and a knot of his men smoked their clay pipes and cast sour, resentful looks across the fire at Gordon.
“Can we talk?” I said as soon as I faced him.
“Talk here,” he answered, his jaw thrust out farther than normal.
“How many men did you lose?”
“Too verdammt many, thanks to your officer.”
The three other Bavarians with him nodded and murmured their agreement.
He hesitated, then looked at his companions.
“Heinrich ging unten,” one of them said.
“Gerhard auch,” said another.
“Nein, ist Gerhard hier,” Melzer answered. “Wo ist Burkhardt?”
“Corporal O’Mara has already taken roll and reported to Captain Gordon,” I said. “He is a good noncommissioned officer who remembers his duty.”
“Duty to him?” Melzer said, gesturing across the fire to Gordon.
“Duty to his men. Captain Gordon said to run to the trees and take cover. O’Mara did that, kept his men together, and in the trees found the brush and wood for this fire. He followed Captain Gordon’s orders and his men lived, except one who lost his head and kept running.
“Where did you rally your men, Feldwebel? Where did you stop them from running? The Bayerisch Garde Schützen, routed by a flock of poultry!”
The three men with Melzer shifted uncomfortably and exchanged looks, but Melzer remained motionless, his eyes avoiding mine.
“Do your head count. Find out how many of your men are alive, how many still have their rifles, how many are injured and how severely. Make your report to Captain Gordon. Do it now.”
I turned and walked away, but after a few steps Melzer’s hand on my arm stopped me. He nodded toward the darkness, and I followed him a couple steps so we were out of earshot of the others.
“You speak to me this way in front of my men?” he hissed.
“I gave you the chance to talk in private and you wouldn’t, so go fuck yourself. Next time keep your nerve, do your job, keep your men alive. Or I’ll find someone who can.”
I rejoined Gabrielle, watched Melzer do his head count and make his report, but it wasn’t long before Gordon drifted over to us. I was tired of talking, but this was one conversation that couldn’t wait.
We stepped away from the fire. He didn’t say anything at first. I guess he wasn’t really sure where to start.
“I panicked,” he finally said,
“Yeah, no shit. Don’t do that again.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“It’s easy to say and hard to do. So what? Someone promise you ‘easy’ when you put on a uniform?”
I leaned in close and spoke quietly to make sure no one at the fire would hear my words.
“Get those NCOs under control and remind them who’s in charge. You’ve got to get out ahead of them mentally and stay there, tell them what to do next before they think of it.
“You screwed up today. I dragged enough brush over your trail they’ll wait and see what you do next, but this is it, Gordon. One more screwup and you will never get them back and this expedition is down to me trying to make it through the mountains on my own.”
“I’ve never been in the field before,” he said. “I feel . . . I can’t explain it, exactly, but –”
“Look,” I interrupted, “back in my own time, when I was still in uniform, sometimes I’d get assigned young soldiers, first time away from home, first time they weren’t the center of attention, the center of the universe. They’d try explaining how they felt about it all, and as their squad leader I would counsel them. Know what I’d say? ‘Just do your job, kid.’
“Maybe you had a bad childhood — overprotective mother, overbearing father, whatever. I don’t care. I don’t care about your mother or your father or how you felt when your pet frog died when you were five years old. They aren’t here. You are.
“So just suck it up and do your job.”
When I got back to the fire, Gabrielle was curled up and sleeping on the ground, her head cushioned on her rolled ground cover and blanket. I unrolled my own ground cover and spread it behind her, then picked her up gently in my arms and slid her onto it, laid down behind her, and spread my blanket over us. Half of the group was snoring by then, the rest looking as if they were wind-up toys running down even as I watched. Fear and exertion take it out of you, burn up every ounce of go-juice you’ve got before you even realize it, and leave you dull-witted and heavy-limbed.
Just before sleep closed my own eyes like the curtain after the final act of a play, I heard Gordon come back into the light. He rousted O’Mara and Melzer and had them post sentries.
I slept a dreamless sleep. I almost always did. I can hardly recall the last time I had a dream I remembered, other than that dream I had of Gabrielle the night in Munich. People who experience combat are supposed to have all sorts of tortured, violent dreams. I knew a few guys who did and a lot more who just didn’t talk about it, so I have no way of knowing. When I first got home from Afghanistan, I had some pretty nasty dreams, but not about what actually happened. They were sexual dreams, very vivid, and very violent. Just having had them made me ashamed, made me wonder what sort of creep I really was. Those dreams went away after a while.
A few years later I used to have a dream where I was in bed and Joanne was beside me, asleep, still alive. Joanne was my late wife, Sarah’s mother. Nothing happened in the dream. I’d just be in bed and Joanne was beside me. When I woke up, she wasn’t there. I’d touch the bed where she had been, just to make sure she hadn’t gotten up to go to the bathroom or start breakfast, thinking maybe all the rest of it was the dream. But the bed was always cold. I only had that dream a few times, at least that I remember.